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Jacqueline Osherow’s latest collection, Whitethorn, offers poems engaged at once with the literature of the Jewish past and the landscape of the American present

Adam Kirsch
March 29, 2011
A cottonwood at the base of the San Rafael Reef.(Bryant Olsen/Flickr)
A cottonwood at the base of the San Rafael Reef.(Bryant Olsen/Flickr)

Whitethorn(Louisiana State University Press, $17.95), the new poetry collection by Jacqueline Osherow, takes its title from a sonnet about the least imposing of flowers. When the whitethorn blooms, Osherow writes, it looks as if “some kids’ discarded tissues, helped by wind,/ have scattered in the hedge,” and it takes a moment for the poet to recognize that what she is seeing is actually a herald of the return of spring:

But who wants to know that spring is tatters
of dingy whiteness clinging to a briar?
Can’t just one bush blaze with fire—
for a single instant—that does not consume?
Or is this my vision? this stingy bloom?

With her usual poetic intelligence, Osherow succeeds in turning the flower into a double metaphor. First, the whitethorn is an emblem of middle age, with its reduced expectations and loss of “bloom”—a floral cousin to Robert Frost’s oven-bird, whose unlovely call is a reminder “that leaves are old, and that for flowers/ mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.” Then, in the poem’s last lines, Osherow deepens the image by contrasting the whitethorn with the burning bush, from which God speaks to Moses in the book of Exodus. With this swerve, a poem about nature becomes a poem about the divine, and the disappointment that the whitethorn embodies becomes spiritually fraught—and distinctively Jewish.

This is a rarer quality in contemporary American poetry than one might think. There are plenty of Jewish American poets at work today—including some of the most highly esteemed, like Adrienne Rich and Robert Pinsky—but no one, I think, is as successful as Osherow at making Jewishness a productive subject for poetry. This is not because her work is saturated with biblical references, or because she writes piously about a vanished past, or because she waxes kabbalistic and makes play with Golems and gematria—all techniques that have grown overfamiliar in American Jewish writing. Rather, Osherow allows Judaism and Jewish history into her work as problems—as things to think about, with, and sometimes against; as sources of questions and, occasionally, answers. In this way, she comes much closer than most poets to an honest expression of contemporary American Jewish sensibility.

In Whitethorn, the poem that best showcases this aspect of Osherow’s talent is “Todas las Puertas,” the last piece in the book. It is 17 pages long and written in the interlocking tercets of terza rima—and these facts alone suggest some of the most important things about Osherow’s talent. First, she is a natural formalist, whose thoughts and feelings flow most easily into the channels of regular meter; and she is able, as contemporary formal poets must be, to bend and flex rhyme in creative ways. Terza rima is the meter Dante uses in the Divine Comedy, but Italian has many more rhymes than modern English. Turning this difficulty into a strength, Osherow comes up with triplets like “Hebrew/view/parvenu” and “Istanbul/guttural/comprehensible,” which make the most of slight assonances and force words into witty juxtaposition.

Second, Osherow is a poet who takes pleasure in discourse—who thinks and talks in verse, rather than offering isolated images and epiphanies. She needs those 17 pages to do justice to the complexity of her subject, which is the relationship of the contemporary American Jew to the Jewish past. “Todas las Puertas” begins by recounting a trip to a town in Spain, Trujillo, where Osherow read that there is a surviving medieval synagogue now being used as a pharmacy. The poem’s first line—“Even then, I knew it was ridiculous”—captures the ambivalence and self-consciousness that accompanies her quest for signs of the Jewish past. After all, Osherow writes, the Hebrew inscription over this synagogue—“This is the gate to God, the righteous will enter through it”—is “what you can see on synagogue/ doorways anywhere.” Yet she is hungry for some tangible sign of the past:

keeping, all the while, on the lookout

for even the most questionable clue—
a dent (maybe from a mezuzah?) in a doorpost—
that a single house had once contained a Jew.

“I swear I looked at every doorpost/ in every juderia left in Spain,” Osherow writes, wryly, aware of the cliché of the insatiable American tourist. Yet this search for physical traces is really a way of trying to imagine her way into a Jewish past so remote that it seems wholly alien. Visiting “the pink stone mikvah in Besalu,” Osherow explains that she had always found “the monthly rite of women’s purification” to be “abhorrent,” an expression of misogyny. Now, however, she is able to imagine it more sympathetically, not as a repudiation of sexuality but as an overture to it:

a ritual extravagant

with the dreaminess of anticipation—
one’s entire body immersed below
water on pink stone in preparation

for the certain pleasure that would follow…
it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh

These echoes of the Song of Songs gain power for coming near the end of a book that is largely devoted to the failure of love. In fact, an earlier sequence, “Sonnets from The Song of Songs,” uses the biblical love poem as a bitter counterpoint to the dissolution of the poet’s own marriage—the casualty, Osherow reveals after some hesitation, of her husband’s mental illness. In “Thorns/Forest,” she writes of her inability to come up with a love poem to her husband:

You could read The Song of Songs. I felt like that,
which explains how I lived the way I lived.
I was fearless once; I chose the rarest
apple tree among the trees of the forest.

But the exhilaration of that choice is shadowed by the suffering that came afterward. In “Snow in Umbria,” Osherow finds an omen of her marriage’s fate in the fact that she and her husband honeymooned in Italy just after a once-in-a-century snowstorm had devastated the fruitful country: “It was like a tour through Pharaoh’s dream,/ with olive trees replacing cows and corn.”

The metaphor here is a little too explicit, especially when the poem concludes by finding inspiration in the gradual recovery of nature, “rumors of the slow ascent of green.” Osherow’s insistence on ending the poem on this affirmative note may be a sign that her style, so intelligent and conscientious, can also be inhibiting. “My misfortune’s relatively mild,” she acknowledges in “Autumn Cottonwood,” but one of the privileges of poetry is to show how the objectively mild can be subjectively total—to inhabit a dark or bright moment without contextualizing it.

Osherow is at her best when dealing with more abstract subjects, showing how much emotion can reside in seemingly impersonal words like history, memory, and identity. That is what she achieves in “Western Red Cedar: Missing Psalm,” another sonnet, which cleverly compresses a whole treatise’s worth of ruminations on American Jewishness into a single conceit. Osherow takes two lines from Psalm 29 as an epigraph—“God’s voice shatters the cedars;/ God shattered the cedars of Lebanon”—and then wonders whether God’s voice could have done the same to “these cedars,” the American giants, “nothing like their puny Lebanese cousins.”

Would a David who lived in America, rather than Judah, still have imagined the same God, Osherow wonders? “He might not have heard God’s voice at all/ in the sudden, giddy clamor of his own.” This is the guilty conscience of American Judaism, afraid that it has abandoned God in the search for self-fulfillment. Yet Osherow declines to let guilt have the last word. Maybe, she wonders, God wishes he had placed David in America, to see what new kinds of songs he would have sung there: “now God laments that missing psalm.” Osherow’s poems are not psalms, exactly, but they offer their own powerful model of what American Jewish poetry can be.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.